Sunday, November 4, 2012

Elmo Karjalainen | Interview

Finnish guitarist Elmo Karjalainen is one of those rare shredders who possesses not only prodigious technique but also a highly developed melodic sensibility. His latest prog-rock release Unintelligent Designs showcases well-crafted songwriting, soaring melodies and some mighty fierce, but not over-indulgent chops.

We featured Elmo in our last post demoing Fractal Audio's Axe-FX amp simulator and effects processor. And we are very glad to be able to feature him again in this exclusive email interview.

The Guitar Column: Thanks so much for doing this interview with us Elmo! Just for clarification, for us non-Finnish speaking folks, how do you pronounce your last name?

Elmo Karjalainen:  Sure thing, the pleasure’s all mine! You can say my name any way that gets my attention. So saying “Hercules” probably wouldn’t register. For English speakers, think of the 'j' as a 'y', like in “yes”, and pronounce the 'a’s' like you would the 'a' in “part”.

TGC:  When did you start playing and what drew you to the guitar in the first place?

EK:  I think I was eleven when I got my first guitar. However, the first two years of my playing mostly involved random hitting of the strings and dives with the whammy. What got me really interested in actually playing was hearing Gary Moore’s live version of 'Shapes of Things'. The guitar solo really grabbed me, and I knew I wanted to be able to play like that. I had tried out piano and drums before that. The piano I wasn’t too keen on, and my drum teacher was my dad, which didn’t really work out. We mostly ended up arguing. Nowadays I’d really like to be able to play the piano (and the drums too for that matter).

TGC:   Did you take lessons early on?

EK:  I took lessons from one teacher for a couple of years, but that didn’t really work. I then changed teachers and Sasa Opacic became my guitar teacher. He asked me the magic question: “What do you want to play?” I said “Gary Moore”, and he said, “Ok. Let’s start with bends and vibrato”. He was really strict with the bends.

TGC:  Who were you listening to back then?

EK:  Aside from the aforementioned Mr. Moore, I was listening to Queen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai (and the bands that he had been in) and a lot of the old Genesis stuff just to name a few.

TGC:  Were you influenced by any Finnish guitarists in particular?

EK:  Not really, unless one counts not wanting to play like Finnish guitarists as an influence. A few years later I did get into Ben Granfelt quite a bit. He’s a very good rock guitar player from Finland. I also got into Pekka Pohjola, a Finnish bass player, who wrote some very interesting music.

TGC:  Did you keep to a steady practice schedule when you first started out?

EK:  Well, I was probably all over the place with my practising. At times I’d practise like crazy, and then I could have a week when I didn’t play at all. The good thing with this approach (although it wasn’t a conscious approach) is that you can take a step back and maybe not get too caught up in your own playing. I listened to a lot of different music all the time, which I think was important. I didn’t stick only to guitar players (although there were a lot of those), and I didn’t just listen to rock.

TGC:  What is your typical practice schedule like these days? Are there particular things you work on?

EK:  I don’t really have one. What I’ve been doing for years now is mostly playing along to stuff. That’s a great way to practise, or at least it works for me. I try to emulate the feel of whoever it is I’m playing over, without trying to play the same licks. Then I try to transfer that into my own playing when I’m playing something else, or in a live situation.

That being said, getting that Yngwie feel while playing jazz could be a bit of a challenge. Nowadays I have trouble finding the time to practise. There’s just too much stuff to do, so when I finally do have some spare time, I can’t really be bothered anymore. I just feel like going to sleep. I’m hoping that will change once I get my master’s thesis out of the way.

TGC:  Name some guitar players whose playing you admire. What elements of their style would you like to incorporate into your own playing?

EK:  Well, I admire a whole bunch of people. We have the usual suspects: Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen. Steve Lukather is someone I really like. Danny Gatton had great technique and he was funny too. Guthrie Govan and Mattias IA Eklundh are both incredible. I really also like Fredrik Thordendahl of Meshuggah.

Then there’s Pat Metheny. His playing and writing skills are brilliant. But if there was someone I had to mention above the others, then I would have to go with Jeff Beck. What he does with a guitar is to make it really sing. Plus his whammy technique is otherworldly.

TGC:  Tell us a bit about your new album Unitelligent Designs, and why that unusual title.

EK:  The title is a bit of a jibe at creationists who want to have creationism taught in schools, but under the name of intelligent design. Also, it’s not the most intelligent thing trying to make money by making an instrumental guitar record. Although in fairness I don’t think many, or any, of us have any illusions on that point.

Other than that the record is a collection of songs that have been around for a long time, some for as long as 10-15 years. I just decided that I had to get it done, to kind of make room for something new. So I sat down and recorded a bunch of tunes, and I also used a couple of older recordings.

TGC:  Tell us about your songwriting process.

EK:  It varies greatly. Sometimes I start with the drums, like in 'The Promised Land of Roundabouts', sometimes it’s a melody bit, sometimes it’s a riff. These songs are from a time when I did lots of stuff by doing the chord progression first. In general I don’t like to spend too much time tinkering with arrangements and stuff. Some songs take longer than others, but I try to avoid going around in circles with tunes. This way stuff gets written.

TGC:  What is the most important thing you would hope to get across to a listener hearing your album for the first time?

EK:  I hope that listeners feel something. Even anger is better than nothing. I also hope that they find it musical and well produced. The technical shreddy side of it is less important (although that’s fun too). Most of all I hope to make people smile.

TGC:  What recording gear did you use on that album?

EK:  I had an AKG C-414 in front of the cab. That went into an RME Fireface. The software used was Sonar. Most people use Pro Tools, but Sonar is what I got used to using when I got to know recording software, and I can’t be bothered to learn the use of a new one.

TGC:  What was your guitar, effects and amp setup for the album?

EK:  Guitars and amps varied. The main guitar was a Fender Yngwie Strat. I also had a couple of guitars built by Sasa Opacic (the man from question 3) at Sale Custom guitars, plus an Ibanez Universe, a Schecter seven-string and a Takamine acoustic, I forget the model.

The amps were Marshall 1987X heads, the reissues of the old MK II 50 watt heads, going into a Marshall Handwired cab with Celestion Greenbacks. I also used a 100 watt Marshall JVM head for some rhythm stuff. In addition to those I had a distortion and a Morley Bad Horsie wah in front of the amp. Add a healthy dose of delay and voila, that’s it.

TGC:  You recently did a demo of Fractal Audio's Axe-FX for The Guitar Column -- thanks for that! What do you like about the Axe-FX?

EK:  No problem. It was fun. Firstly I like the fact that you have everything there, all the sounds you’ll ever need and then some. Secondly, it’s by far the closest thing to the real thing. So much so that when we did an A/B test at the studio, with the Fractal modelling the amps I use, it was really a really close thing.

I’ve been using the Roland Cubes for smaller gigs (and a Cube also features on the songs 'The Demise of a Karaoke Bar' and 'Tuire’s and Ville’s Wedding Waltz'), but the Axe-FX beats it by a country mile. It also reacts to dynamics really nicely.

TGC:  What do you think of some of the other amp modellers on the market?

EK: I must say that I’m not too familiar with some of the other products out there. I hear that the Line 6 stuff has got to a point where it’s quite good. Other than that, I can’t really say.

TGC:  Tell us about the Sale Custom guitars you are using.

EK:  Sasa, as was revealed earlier, was my guitar teacher back in my teens. He also builds guitars and has a brand called Sale Custom Guitars -- Sale being his nickname. He recently built me a Strat out of mahogany, and it sounds fantastic. It’s basically an Yngwie strat, but with a Wilkinson tremolo and a mahogany body. I also have a Jem copy(ish) thing with a Fernandes sustainer, and another Yngwie strat copy with a humbucker as the bridge pickup.

You can find his website here:

TGC:  Do you use any unusual tunings?

EK:  The Schecter seven-string is tuned G-C-G-C-G-C-E, like Devin Townsend tunes his guitars. The Ibanez Universe is tuned normally, but with a drop A.

TGC:  Do you have a dream instrument that you would absolutely love to own eventually?

EK:  Probably a seven-string version of the Yngwie strat. I really like that low stuff, and I really like the sound of single coil pickups, or stacked humbuckers.

TGC:  What gear would you bring to a live gig? (Pedals, effects, amps)

EK:  It all depends on what kind of gig it is. Nowadays I’d just get my Fractal and the accompanying midi pedal, plus a wah. Earlier I used to use the Marshalls live as well, with a Rocktron Intellifex for delay, and as a power attenuator. You could get really good results by just turning the output down on the Intellifex, which brought down the volume, but kept the sound almost exactly the same.

TGC:  What kind of picks and strings do you use?

EK:  The picks I use are 1.5mm Dunlops. The strings are GHS Custom Light Boomers, .009-.046. On the seven strings the gauges are different of course, but I don’t remember them by heart. I think the low string -- yes, the low G-string for all of you who already had the thought -- on the Schecter is a .070 I think.

TGC:  Other than your solo work, what other projects are you involved in right now?

EK:  I’ve been in Deathlike Silence (, ) for many years now, and we’ve slowly been contemplating the idea of returning from a slight hiatus. I also play in a band called Seagrave (, and we’re just about to start recording our first record. It’s a more traditional band in the style of Iron Maiden, Yngwie Malmsteen, etc.

I’m also involved in a band called Conquest ( I’ve also played the leads for an upcoming album by the bass player from a band called Kilpi. The project is going by the name of Helena & Kalevi at the moment, but I’m not entirely sure if that will be the final name. You can find a few raw mixes of that stuff on YouTube. In addition to that I also play in an Eighties cover band.

Those are the things that are really happening. Then there’s the stuff that’s in the planning stages, like a progressive metal band. We have the tunes for an album, and we have the band. We even have a name: Insomaniac. Then there’s the as yet unnamed quartet that is meant to be playing my solo stuff, but we had to put that on hold because of the lack of time.

TGC:  What is a typical day like in the life of Elmo Karjalainen?

EK:  It mainly consists of diapers nowadays, due to the fact that I became a father nine months ago. Other than the diapers and the sometimes less than well slept nights it’s been nice so far. I’m waiting for her to become a teenager. That should be fun. I also have a few guitar students and I do some substitute teaching occasionally. I’m also working on my master’s thesis in philosophy at Åbo Akademi University.

TGC:  Thanks so much for doing this interview with us, Elmo -- All the Best!


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